Sunderland’s Dan Ballard explains international aim after Euro 2028 decision and ex-Watford man’s retirement

Sunderland’s Dan Ballard on his role with Northern Ireland and potentially playing at Euro 2028 which will be held in the UK and Ireland.

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Sunderland defender Dan Ballard hopes his experience with Northern Ireland will help him become a better leader as he looks to step up on the international stage.

The 24-year-old centre-back is preparing for Euro 2024 qualifying matches against San Marino and Slovenia, with Michael O’Neill’s side looking to end a run of five consecutive defeats which has ended their hopes of reaching next summer’s tournament in Germany.

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Ballard, who was born in Stevenage, qualifies to play for Northern Ireland because his mother was born in the country and has been capped 19 times at international level. He has also become a more important player in the team’s backline after former Watford defender Craig Cathcart announced retirement from football earlier this year.

“Craig has been brilliant for many years, he has helped me a lot and I enjoyed playing next to him,” said Ballard. “He has now made his decision so there is the space for other players to step up and carry on where he left off really…It’s a shame he has retired but someone has to step up now and I want to be that person.”

While Northern Ireland are set to miss out on next summer’s European Championships, Ballard says the prospect of playing at Euro 2028 can be a motivating factor for the Green and White Army. It was announced this week the competition will be held in the UK and Ireland, with matches set to be played at Belfast’s redeveloped Casement Park.

“I think that makes these games coming up now even more important,” said Ballard when asked about potentially playing at the aforementioned tournament. “We have that goal and incentive to look forward to…I’m hoping we’ll have a strong team and a winning team by then.”

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Ballard was 17 when Northern Ireland reached the knockout stages of Euro 2016, the country’s first appearance at a major tournament for 30 years, and hopes to be part of something similar. “I watched all the games, it was amazing,” he said when asked about his memories from seven years ago. “I never thought I’d have that opportunity. To have it now dangling there is something to really look forward to.”